Grateful for Every Breath

Cystic Fibrosis can’t suck the wind from Nicki Perkins' passion for life

Nicki Perkins
CrossFit athlete and cystic fibrosis sufferer Nicki Perkins lifts weights while hooked up to supplemental oxygen to help her breathe while exercising.

Nicki Perkins needs about 25 pills and supplements, inhaling medications and giving herself injections every day to stay alive. But the 44-year-old Calgarian, who suffers cystic fbrosis, has another weapon to combat symptoms she has lived with since birth.

“CrossFit is my escape and my lifesaver,” says the woman who owns her own gym, Chinook CrossFit. “Exercise is like sunlight to me. I need it to live.”

Doing WODs (workout of the day) with only 29 per cent lung function, Perkins makes dragging an oxygen machine around by a 22-foot tube look perfectly normal. The workouts are her definition of Happy Hour.

“If I am not moving blood through my body and getting as much oxygen as I can, I will shrivel up and die,” she says. “With CrossFit, all we are doing is training to be better at life.”

Sometimes it is, lift lift, puff puff. Other days, the self-professed overachiever is rocking it like a well-oiled athlete, bench pressing and rowing up a sweat. Earlier this year, Perkins competed in the CrossFit open – scoffing that she came in “dead last.” OK, “not dead last, two people withdrew.”

Humble, if not dismissive, about her athletic achievements, others were so impressed they ensured a photograph of Perkins competing with oxygen at her side went viral.

Cystic fibrosis, an incurable genetic disease mainly affecting the digestive system and lungs, strikes about 4,000 Canadians and 70,000 people globally. As a child, Perkins’ parents pushed her into sports, which proved good medicine, but she hit the bars instead of the fields in university, taking a dangerous toll on her lung function and weight.

Clinging to life at 74 pounds, she was forced to have a permanent feeding tube implanted just below her ribs to help her maintain a healthy weight. It was, she said, her rock bottom in the battle against the disease.

“No one likes to stand out in a crappy way. It was like – I never get to be a normal girl and wear a bikini again,” she says.

These days, Perkins’ dedication to fitness – which includes anhour-long walk with her dog five days a week – means she is physically the best she can be. As for that bikini – bring it on.

Nicki Perkins
[/media-credit] CrossFit athlete and cystic fibrosis sufferer Nicki Perkins lifts weights while hooked up to supplemental oxygen to help her breathe while exercising.

Short on breath, yet tireless and tenacious, Perkins started her Summit Foundation for Cystic Fibrosis. She has raised more than $2 million since 2005 for research at a University of Calgary lab named in her honour. In 2014, she was named Calgary philanthropist of the year.

Now on a waiting list for a lung transplant, Perkins has plans for what would literally be a breath of fresh air.

“I want to get back to school to be a lawyer and to make the CrossFit Games,” she says.

She knows new lungs are not a cure for her disease and chances of living five years after a transplant are only 50 per cent.

“I don’t get a new life,” she says.

Sure, there are days when she gets tangled up in her oxygen tubes while vacuuming and falls to the floor in tears, but Perkins is quick to getback up.

“You’re either a victim or a survivor,” she says, crediting her iron will to being born angry, accepting her fate and knowing that while it is a struggle, life is good.

“I hate complainers,” she says. “I may have been given a cactus, but I don’t have to sit on it. I am grateful for every day, every breath.”